O’Sullivan reveals emotional connection with Ding Junhui ahead of World Championship showdown
Ronnie O’Sullivan (L) shakes hands with Ding Junhui after the fourth round of the UK Championship at The Barbican, York, England, December 5, 2019.
“If Ding (Junhui) looks at his career, he’ll say he’s probably got a great balance – he’s been super successful on the table, but he hasn’t been a slave to the sport,” observed snooker great Ronnie O’Sullivan on Thursday ahead of their blockbuster tie in the second round of the World Championship.
The five-time champion, arguably the best player in the world, has a soft spot for the boyish Chinese star. The heartwarming scene of the English veteran and Ding wrapping in a tight embrace after a classic battle at the World Championship quarterfinal in 2017 still lingers in many fans’ memory. “I love him, he’s such a lovely guy,” said O’Sullivan, explaining that long hug.
It will be the third meeting between the pair at the championship, each having won one of their previous encounters. Facing a potentially explosive showdown, O’Sullivan is relishing the “tranquility” at the Crucible in northern England, amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
“My whole life has been about keeping it quiet and as simple as I can… I don’t go out to restaurants, takeaways are fantastic for me; it’s kind of how I’ve lived my life. Now I can go to snooker tournaments and still have that tranquility,” he told Eurosport.
“I’m a little bit in that bracket where I like to enjoy my life. There’s always a trade-off. I like to be healthy, live a good lifestyle and that means I can’t play in every tournament, otherwise my lifestyle wouldn’t be how I’d want it.
“Ding probably falls into that category as well. He gets really excited by the really big tournaments, but probably doesn’t want to be on the road 24/7. He drives his own car in many ways, and I respect that.”
Championship droughts weigh heavily on the 33-year-old Ding, a 14-time ranking event winner who is still searching for his first world title. During a brief interview with CGTN Sports Scene earlier this week, O’Sullivan predicted that Ding will eventually break his duck.
“I think Ding’s got a very good record and is a very, very reliable player. He’s delivered the goods for a good 15, 16, 17 years now,” he said.
“Obviously he would love to win the World Championship because as a player growing up and as a professional, you always get asked that question ‘Why haven’t you won the World Championships?’ That’s a horrible question to be asked when you are as good a player as Ding is.
“I had that for quite a while and when I won it for the first time it was a big relief. I think, for Ding, he’s more than capable of doing it, and I’m sure he will one day, I just hope it’s not this year, you know.”
On Thursday, O’Sullivan said that time may be running short for Ding if he wants to taste the glory.
“I’m sure he’d love to get his hands on the world title, but each year you get older, it gets harder,” he noted. “Some players can play well into their 40s like me and John Higgins and Mark Williams, but we’re exceptions to the rule.”
Yet Ding remains upbeat about his prospects at this year’s showpiece event.
“Sometimes I need to learn the new things to control the game,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the second round, to improving my game again. I’m looking forward to winning.”
This is a short video excerpt that was shared on social media.
Ronnie played very well in the last 32, and this may be the best opportunity he’ll get to win another World title. He hates the hassle that comes with his status in the game, particularly in this tournament. The huge demands of the media, not being able to take a walk without being asked for autographs of selfies every three steps he takes, the constant weight of expectations … all that is a huge burden and one he’s been carrying since 28 years now. There is very little of it this year because of the pandemics.
But then, the same can be said about Ding who has been propelled to stardom at just 18 and has been carrying the hopes of his nation, China, ever since. Having been in the media room at the Crucible for six years, I have seen by myself how much pressure and expectations the Chinese media are putting on the shoulders of this man. It’s crazy really. They aren’t there this time.
Those two are friends, almost “brothers’. This goes back to the 2007 Masters Final, where Ronnie showed a lot of empathy in comforting his very distraught young opponent. He brought him to his own dressing room, made tea for them both, and also brought in one of his close friends who happens to be Chinese, in order to be able to communicate with Ding – who at the time didn’t speak English – and help him through this difficult moment. Many fans believe that the then very young Ding was upset because he was heavily beaten, but I have been told by reliable sources that there was more than that. He was also badly abused by members of the audience, including Chinese spectators that were probably angered because they had hefty bets on him to win.
I hope that this will be a good match, and one they can enjoy. I want Ronnie to win this, of course, but if he loses to Ding, I will then be 100% supporting Ding in his quest for a maiden World title.